Addiction Recovery for First Responders

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Addiction recovery is not limited to any specific population. All people are at some level of risk of developing substance use disorder (SUD). However, some populations are more vulnerable to SUD than others. One group that may experience increased risks of addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders is first responders.

First responders may feel increased pressures to appear mentally and behaviorally strong as a result of their job roles. Often, this deters them from seeking the professional treatment that they may require to establish sobriety and maintain recovery. Everyone can benefit from assistance once in a while, and this is no different for front-line heroes.

The Stressful Roles of First Responders

First responders are emergency service personnel. They are likely to be among the first people to arrive at an emergency situation. Some examples of their roles include, but are not limited to:

  • Firefighters
  • Police officers
  • Emergency medical technicians (EMTs)
  • Paramedics
  • Volunteer civil defense workers
  • Members of an emergency rescue team
  • Law enforcement officers

As you can see, first responders have different jobs. However, they all share one main duty: to provide assistance or incident resolution at the scene of an emergency. They may help victims evacuate from the scene. First responders may provide necessary medical attention and assist with crowd control, among other things.

The Inherent Hazards of These Jobs

While on duty, first responders are often exposed to work-related stressors and other potentially hazardous situations. According to a publication by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), some of these exposures include:

  • Death (both direct and indirect)
  • Grief
  • Injury
  • Pain
  • Loss
  • Threats to personal safety
  • Long hours of work
  • Frequent shifts and longer shift hours
  • Poor sleep
  • Physical hardship
  • Other negative experiences

Exposure to or experience of these events can result in trauma.

Mental and Behavioral Health Concerns for First Responders

Needless to say, first responders are exposed to a range of stressful circumstances on duty. Over time, a stress response can build up and interfere with their mental and physical health.

Increased exposure to potentially hazardous circumstances is not the only factor that increases first responders' risk of developing addiction and other mental health problems. As mentioned above, first responders are frequently exposed to these environments, sometimes several in one day. Thus, the pace of their work can interfere with their ability to appropriately integrate their work experiences.

In the aforementioned publication, the SAMHSA explains:

For instance, according to a study, 69 percent of EMS professionals have never had enough time to recover between traumatic events. As a result, depression, stress and posttraumatic stress symptoms, suicidal ideation, and a host of other functional and relational conditions have been reported.

Further, untreated mental health symptoms can increase first responders' risk of turning to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. Self-medicating practices not only worsen existing mental health problems but can also lead to the development of SUD and addiction.

How Shame and Guilt Can Discourage Treatment

Additionally, it is important to place attention on the heroic stigma of first responders. While the title of “hero” is well-deserved, a heroic stigma can deter first responders from participating in addiction recovery. They may fear feeling inadequate or ill-equipped to maintain their job role if they seek recovery services.

Unfortunately, feelings of guilt and shame can also worsen existing problems. They can eventually interfere with an individual's ability to function normally in their daily life.

Professional Addiction Treatment for First Responders

First responders must recognize that they do not have to battle the taxing responsibilities of their job roles alone. To prevent their condition from worsening, first responders can utilize professional treatment resources. These can help them heal from mental health disorders including addiction. Treatment can also help them properly process the underlying causes of these conditions.

Any type of addiction treatment program can benefit first responders. However, there is no question that this population has unique needs in recovery. First responders endure many specific challenges both on and off duty. Therefore, they may find the greatest value in a treatment program that is specifically designed for first responders. These programs bring together like-minded individuals with shared job roles to inspire more effective peer support.

Maintaining Job Roles in Treatment

In a first responder addiction recovery treatment program, there are many unique considerations made for participants.

For example, some treatment facilities may offer these programs in the form of intensive outpatient (IOP), partial hospitalization (PHP), or general outpatient programming. These options allow first responders to maintain their current job roles while participating in treatment. For those with more severe addictions or co-occurring disorders, participation in residential treatment programs (RTC) may be necessary.

Regardless of the type of program that an individual utilizes, first responders can expect to participate in both individual and group therapy sessions during treatment.

Healing Together

Addiction treatment and recovery for first responders are built on foundations of compassion, trust, and trauma-informed care. In treatment, first responders will be reminded that it is okay for them to take breaks. It is not selfish to do so. They will be empowered by clinical staff and other peers in recovery to prioritize their own health and well-being.

Treatment programs for first responders offer an invaluable opportunity for individuals to heal together as a unit. First responders can lean on their peers as they navigate feelings of guilt, shame, and more as they process the impacts of their job roles. Additionally, these individuals will be able to explore new and healthier ways of thought and behavior by using expressive therapies including art therapy, meditation, and more.

First responders are exposed to a plethora of hazardous experiences while on duty that can interfere with their mental and physical health, increasing their risk of addiction and other mental health disorders. Often, the stigma of needing to appear “strong” can deter first responders from getting the treatment they need to recover. Fortunately, many treatment facilities offer specialized treatment for populations such as first responders. Pathways Recovery Center offers a wide variety of treatment programs and therapeutic options that can be individualized to meet the unique needs of each client. We combine evidence-based and holistic treatments, offering a whole-person approach to healing. To learn more about our treatment programs, call us today at (888) 771-0966. Let us heal together.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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